I don’t really mean you, dear reader: I mean all those people out there, wondering if they should go to library school/dreaming of a career where they read all day/thinking that since they can’t get a job, they should try an MSLIS. I’m talking to them, both because somebody ought to, even if it’s just screaming into the Void, and because I’ve gotten asked about library school a hell of a lot lately, and I’d honestly rather just be able to send a snarky blog post in response, rather than typing out the same thing over and over again.
First, a housekeeping note: this is tied to my post about my four-year job search; I’m going to put out a Part II about getting a job in the library field as well. And, finally, while I’ve even gone so far as to create a Librarianship category, a lot of this doesn’t just pertain to libraries and librarianship; it’s pretty much a reality of the Millennial and Generation Z job hunt, and, unless something huge changes, it will probably be an issue for Generation A or whatever comes after Gen Z.
Before you fill out that library school application, you need to stop and think: why do I want to be a librarian? It is (unfortunately) pretty common for people to want to become librarians because they love to read, or they love books SO MUCH!!!, or the old card catalogue was the best thing EVER!, or they just love working in quiet places. (Pro tip: very few libraries are quiet; we live in the modern world. Sorry. Pick a different career.) Maybe they can’t bear to ever throw a book away—which also means they should look into a different career. (I’ll talk more about what collection development and management entails in another post, eventually.) They might be having trouble finding work in another field (let’s face it, finding a decent full-time job with benefits is a beast in any field) and think, for whatever reason, that librarianship would be rad and would definitely get them a job faster. (They’d be wrong.)
A lot of people (hope to) go into the field because of romanticized visions of libraries, archives, and librarianship, and the thing is, librarianship isn’t about the books. It isn’t about reading all day: you definitely won’t do that. (You might even read less, although, to be sure, I’m currently finishing up the ninety-ninth book I’ve read thus far in 2019, so you also might not.) Don’t go into librarianship to sit around and drink tea and have genteel conversations about literature: you’ll do that, possibly, but it won’t happen often, and there’s a good chance it won’t be half as genteel as you’re thinking. Librarianship is about the people, and about the information. It was about people and information in Alexandria; it was about people and information in the great libraries of the caliphates of Al-Andalus. It was about people and information (and, yes, entertainment) when my grandfather was a library director and my grandmother a cataloguer; it’s still about people and information (and entertainment) now that I am a college librarian.
It’s quietly radical: I believe that you, whomever you are, whatever your circumstances, have the right to fair and accurate information (and to entertainment, even if you cannot afford a movie ticket or the price of a book), and I am here to make sure that you have that access—and that you have it with the privacy and respect to which you, as a fellow human being, are entitled. We don’t always do a great job of living by that radicalism, particularly as we dance about the idea that, somehow, we can be neutral in the face of evil and still be The Good Ones. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim,” Elie Weisel tells us, and it’s something with which each librarian must struggle. In a largely white and female field, we must also reach out across divides, and work to make ourselves worthy of our patrons’ trust. It isn’t easy; anyone who thinks it facile is either lying to themselves or doing a terrible job. (Please don’t be that person.)
Librarianship is about the people, always, no matter where you are or what you do or what manner of library or archive you’re in—and people are incredible and fascinating lovely and messy and sometimes pretty terrible. (Yes, I count myself in this number.) Your patrons are also wonderful and terrible and messy, sometimes literally. Your humor will get darker and darker, bleaker and bleaker. I’ve had books thrown at my head and have been assured that my taxes pay your salary (so did mine, for that matter); I’ve been harassed, groped, followed. But I’ve also talked students down from the precipices of terror until they could finish their paper; I’ve helped people find the information they need to get a job, or keep their life from falling apart. I’ve made a difference. I make a difference. What I do matters, and I love it. It’s at least half calling—and that, dear reader, is a huge problem.
It’s great to love (most of) what you do. It really is! But it also means that there’s a good shot you’ll be exploited at work. (I think you’d find, if you listened, that many, many pink collar professionals—including librarians—are being exploited at work.) You’ll cope with sexual harassment—a lot. You may or may not get any support while you do so. (When I was twenty-one or so, my supervisor told me that man just couldn’t resist groping me, with a body like mine. I spent years trying to hide so my hips and breasts wouldn’t Bother Anyone before finally realizing, when I was groped wearing a down parka, that it was all a lie anyway.) Like historians and scientists, every rando out there knows Everything About Your Profession; there’s always that Forbes economist guy to suggest that we replace libraries and archives with Amazon. (Library Twitter’s responses were predictably amazing, but this sort of rhetoric isn’t funny: it’s a conscientious effort to keep that boot on people’s necks—and to destroy our field more generally.)
But there’s more! You’ll be asked to take on ever more duties: Narcan administrator, counselor, therapist, social services (remember Social Services from Moonrise Kingdom?), and more. (It’s worth noting that this was a thing back in my grandparents’ day, too, though it has gotten a bit more extreme.) You’ll be asked to do more and more and more on less and less and less—which will often come straight out of your paycheck. Heck, as people retire or flee for better-paying worlds, those jobs will not be filled—except by you, working three people’s jobs, and then four, and then five, and six, and maybe even seven. (This is, by the way, a very real example.) “Other duties as assigned” is a bear of a phrase. It can mean anything from cleaning up urine or vomit or dealing with that serial pooper to talking someone down from a crisis or letting students sit in your office and eat all your candy and write their paper there, where they feel safe.
So, dear reader, should you get a library degree? I can’t, of course, answer that for you. I can tell you I probably would have gotten a degree in arts management or school administration if I had it to do over again—and I say this as someone for whom librarianship is close to that old religious calling. To be honest, if I ever have the energy, I’ll probably try to pick up credits in business or management—because The Man is the devil, but I’ve got bills to pay. But this probably doesn’t much help you. Maybe information is your calling. Maybe you want to be surrounded by databases as long as you shall work. So here are my suggestions, before I move on to the next set of information: take a look at Hack Library School. Get a job in a library. (Really, get the MSLIS or MLS if they pay for it—and if you’re guaranteed a raise. Otherwise, meh.) Take a long look at library jobs and at what they’re paying (and cost of living in their locations).
And then, if you decide you don’t want to go into libraries for silence, or for books, or for a quick gig, fill out the application. Don’t take out loans: public service loan forgiveness is never going to happen. Take every class you can on diverse users; learn how to code. Learn about business librarianship, and how to hide what you think of James Patterson so you can actually help the people who need your assistance. Create your own networks, but make sure to give as well as take, which can be very hard. And start applying for jobs at the beginning of your second year of library school.
not my word: some stuff other folks say about employment & libraries
- “It’s time we talk about librarians and money” by Arnett for Literary Hub, 2019
- “Overlooked: How the New York Times covers librarians’ obituaries” by Blakemore writing for JSTOR Daily
- “When libraries are ‘second responders‘” by Fallow for The Atlantic‘s Reporter’s Notebook, 2019
- “Fighting sexual harassment in the library: Knowing what to do when patrons go too far” by Ford for American Libraries, 2017
- “Other duties as assigned: Front-line librarians on the pressure to do more” compiled by Ford for American Libraries, 2019
- “Stop sexual harassment in your library: Protecting librarians from inappropriate patrons” by Ford for American Libraries, 2017
- “Love your job? Someone may be taking advantage of you” by Duke’s Fuqua School of Business
- “The state of sexual harassment in the library” by Jensen for Bookriot, 2017
- “Sexual harassment in libraries, post-#MeToo: What has and hasn’t changed?” by Jensen for Bookriot, 2019
- “The important emotional labor of librarians most people never think about” by Kagan for Medium (Oleg Kagan, btw, is a good one to read for library stuff—he’s on the front lines, as it were)
- “Understanding contemporary forms of exploitation: Attributions of passion serve to legitimize the poor treatment of workers” by Kim, Campbell, Shepherd, & Kay, 2019
- “Why ‘Do what you love’ is pernicious advice” by Lam for The Atlantic, 2015
- “Computer science could learn a lot from library and information science” by Leetaru for Forbes, 2019
- “All career advice for women is a form of gaslighting” by Livni for QZ
- “#TimesUp on harassing your public librarian” by MacBride for Shondaland, 2018
- “On the perilous plight of the part-time librarian” by Spence for Literary Hub, 2017
- “The inside poop on librarians’ daily adventures” by Warren for The Philadelphia Inquirer, 2016